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Archive for the ‘Religious Observance’ Category

The Forgotten Virtue

There are a number of standard answers from all the variety of traditions within Unitarian Universalistism in regard to the number of individuals it takes to change a light bulb.

One tradition says that we should accept the light bulb as it is, another that we think the light bulb if it desires to change should change itself. One tradition calls for a quorum, which is 5 or 6 – wait, how many are in a quorum, and did we call Paul who is in charge of buildings and grounds . . . oh God, wait, no, hold on . . . never mind – what was I talking about?

Oh yes, as to light bulbs, my favorite response is:

We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if, in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

I remember when I first came to the UUCJ one member offered a new UU joke every week. This never offended me, it actually kept me coming back. In fact, the light bulb joke helped me decide I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist. Being able to laugh at myself has always been important, I do many silly things, and though sometimes I am being serious when they happen, learning to laugh at them helps me realize not to take myself so seriously. I find I often take myself way too seriously, and most the arguments I get into are when I am doing that very thing.

Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher, makes the point that we should be okay with laughing at ourselves while discussing beginning meditation. He states that one of the first things we learn is that our minds are never quiet, and we must learn to laugh at our Monkey Mind, always jumping from topic to topic, and never being still. He doesn’t call upon us to lament our inability to be light-hearted about it.

In the Hebrew Bible we read about the story of Isaac. Angels came to visit his parents before he was born. They said to Abraham, who was 100 years old, that his 90 year old wife, Sarah, would have a child in the next year. Sarah, over hearing this laughed, but the angles never condemned her lack of faith. Maybe they understood the silly notion of a 90 year old woman giving birth, and they probably also understood that her first 90 childless years had been very hard on her. The angels said, because she had laughed, she would now have to name him Isaac, to which the root word in Hebrew means laughter. Nine months later she never complained about naming her child Laughter, because now her laughing was not in derision but in joy.

The seven heavenly virtues go like this:

  • Chastity
  • Temperance
  • Charity
  • Diligence
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness
  • Humility

Granted, we have not had the opportunity to discuss these in forum or during a board meeting because we don’t consider these words dogma, but they come from one of our sources. Of course, if we were to take these into conference, I would make a point on one very important forgotten virtue–humor. If humor was added, I would be alright with the Heavenly Virtues. It is important to have a good sense of humor, especially when we work so hard to do important things. As UU’s we are often working toward very lofty and difficult goals and we face a lot of discouragement. Sometimes we just need to have a good laugh.

Many times Jon Stewart has been accused of being too light-hearted about serious subjects–making jokes about important issues. To this, Jon Stewart generally reminds dissenters that he hosts a comedy show on a comedy network. He does take very important issues and relate them to us in a way in which we can laugh, but he has found this amazing middle ground where we can laugh, while at the same time look upon these topics seriously. That is the gift of comedy, the gift of humor.

Why don’t we take some time and give that gift to each other this week, either in the comments here or on the facebook page? Just remember to keep it positive and PG-13–after all, we are Unitarian Universalist–what would people think?


Reflections on Being an Ally

“In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.”

-Anne Braden

Anne Braden was a white civil rights activist in Louisville, Kentucky; one of very few white American’s Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoted to say that he trusted to have his back. I was introduced to her legacy while attending the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2013. Her story quickly began to weave its way into my soul. If you don’t know much about her there is a wonderful documentary about her life. This post is not about Anne Braden, but her life story is very important when we consider what it means to be an ally.

Sadly, in our generation being an ally is a learned ideal. With the recent news from Arizona, Kansas, and a myriad of other states our ability to stand with others will become very important. Civil rights leaders have fought a long embittered struggle through the latter half of the 20th century to end one form of segregation only to be met with segregation anew in the 21st. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have been fighting an uphill battle for many years and they must be gaining ground because opposition to equality has really kicked into overdrive. In the United States we look to Arizona reinstituting Jim Crow. Russia now makes demonstrating for the LGBTQ community a crime, and different countries in Africa calling for prison and death–all for people who just want the right to be themselves. Now, this new segregation is making its way into Mississippi.

When I was a child I never understood why two people of the same sex couldn’t be married. When I was in high school very brave friends starting coming out, and as I grew to be an adult I found that I knew more people in the LGBTQ community than I had imagined. Human beings–not faceless masses huddled in alleyways–but friends, family, and loved ones. I noticed that when I needed an ear, they listened; when I needed a shoulder to cry on, they offered; and when I needed support, they provided. They are different than me, but not really. Our hearts beat the same, our blood pumps the same, and when it comes down to brass tacks, we want the same thing– love. In fact I find the continued use of the terms they and them in this post problematic. I feel limited by language, but then in reality isn’t that just a reflection of the privileges I am granted automatically by being white, male, and heterosexual?

The happiest day of my life was my wedding, and it is a terrible tragedy that weddings only come to those born within a narrow range of acceptability. Love shouldn’t be allowed only for the privileged. Over the years being an ally has meant different things, but the core has always been the same. People I love are being marginalized and mistreated because of who they are, and I find that unacceptable. Perhaps a better word is shameful. But we have to continue to work together with that vision of a different world– the one we write poems about, the one we sing songs about. Staying in the struggle and the power will enable us to get there together.


I have a Quick Question

When I was new to Unitarian Universalism a lot of my friends and family wanted to know more about the religion. After doing a fairly “shoddy” job of explaining it I would get the response, “So it’s not really a religion then.” I was always confused by that statement, because after my time with the UU church I came to see what many would call “true religion.” My Christian heritage actually defines true religion, and I have seen it as long as I have been a UU.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

-James 1:27

In fact there are two big things that strike me the most about this statement: first, UU’s do this without having to fear God will strike them dead or send them to hell–care is part of our nature; and second, we are not afraid to make it part of our politics. UU’s generally try, though partners and members, to make this list a little longer. We argue on behalf of those who are unable, and we help let others know their voice matters.

In fact, one of the most important things “religious” people do is practice their religion. Okay, maybe that sounds a little cyclical. Let’s take a look at it. Most people define religion very narrowly. I notice often that many have a hard time defining a religion to be a religion without invoking the name of Jesus. UU’s go one step further and don’t even require members to invoke the name of a god.

In so doing, we still use words like faith, communion, and even prayer. I believe UU’s do something revolutionary and extremely honest. We set a basic set of principles and ask that while we work together we abide by them. Religion for us then is not about belief or necessarily even G/god–it is about being part of community and our responsibility to that community.

For Unitarian Universalists, religion is about what we do. What does the existence of G/god even matter when we let children starve, prejudice to be defended, and the innocent die? What makes us strong is that we work together so we don’t have to be afraid, even though we rest in the minority.

Many religions are also defined by their daily practice–whether that practice be prayer, reading, or doing good deeds. Unitarian Univesalists do this as well. We just let others decide their own practice. While some may practice through reading or prayer, others do so through feeding the poor. Still others define practice through revitalizing their community. What is your daily practice, and why is it important to you?


Fear of God

When I was new to Unitarian Universalism I learned a new “Fear of God,” not the fear to believe, or the fear of God’s glory, but the fear to mention his name, the fear to appear too theistic to those who are not. I was shocked then when I read “Our Chosen Faith,” the book given me during the celebration of my membership, that God was all throughout the book.

After doing research into the matter I found that Unitarian Universalism was working toward reclaiming religious language including God. So I sat down today in my office to write a few words about this reclamation. I started with a simple Google search, and was taken down a rabbit hole of history that I found very educational.

In 2003 Rev William G Sinkford, self-proclaimed atheist and President of the UUA, made the national news as he declared that Unitarian Universalism would begin reclaiming religious language. He said in 2003 that it would be his goal to reclaim the “language of reverence, in the association,” citing his issue with the lack of spiritual language anywhere in our principles or traditions.

In a sermon in January of 2003 preached to First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church he said, “I believe that Unitarian Universalism is growing up. Growing out of a cranky and contentious adolescence into a more confident maturity. A maturity in which we can not only claim our Good News, the value we have found in this free faith, but also begin to offer that Good News to the world outside these beautiful sanctuary walls.” Later in that sermon he points to one of the problems he sees with our refusal to claim religious language “Our resistance to religious language gets reflected, I think, in the struggle that so many us have in trying to find ways to say who we are, to define Unitarian Universalism.”

But he was very clear that Unitarian Universalism was not going to adopt the picture of God in the Christian Sense. In his 2009 book, The Cathedral of the World, Forest Church defines God this way “’God’ is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” These two men are very clear to define God differently than modern Christianity.

Living in the American South this idea takes on a completely different flavor. In Jackson, Mississippi, public atheists still work against prejudice. Mississippi is not in a world clearly enveloped in humanism or atheism. Many schools still begin their days with Christian prayer and becoming politically active is difficult if not backed by Judeo-Christian identification.

And for this reason I think it is important to reclaim religious language as a whole, but respectful to all parties willing to join the meeting: to understand conversation of faith, belief, and salvation–not in the popular sense but an even more traditional sense. It is important to talk about sin, but sin as the negative action against each other not divine judgment against the self in regard to things we cannot control. It is important to talk about salvation from the prison we build around ourselves that doesn’t involve changing the core of who we are. Most of all it is important to talk about God–whether we mean the deity that teaches us to become better or the Spirit of Life that drives us, let us talk of God, without fear but with love. As we reclaim the language of our UU forbearers we may find that we really aren’t that polarized after all–even in Mississippi.

The Practice of Nothing Sure is Something

I asked my Dharma teacher what his practice was, and he said doing nothing. I struggle with doing nothing. I don’t see how it is positive.

I look into a world of sharp edges, with issues, big issues. We fight for equality, we fight for dignity, we work to feed the starving and get frustrated at the fact there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, yet people still die of hunger. I struggle with the idea that doing nothing is a positive spiritual practice.

There is always something to do, there are papers to write, tests to grade, programs that won’t code themselves and the poor are always with us. There is so much to do–there isn’t enough time. So how then is doing nothing good? How do I give myself permission for…nothing?

One Buddhist Lama in India spoke to his student about how difficult it can be in the West to practice. He was a yak herder until he was 12 then he went to the monastery. He never owned an iPhone, never watched TV, and seldom ever heard a radio. He asked “Don’t American’s have a battery inside, why do you always have to be plugged in?”

As I meditate and work hard at doing nothing I hear my father’s voice ring through my head. My father worked very hard and still does. He never understood my work as a minister or my brother’s work as a social worker. He said, “I just don’t understand getting paid to talk to people–you dig a ditch you get paid, you talk for fun.”

I remember my unemployment, I remember the shame of not contributing, the shame of not accomplishing, the shame of getting nothing done. I worked hard those many months, I worked hard while getting nothing done.

But what if getting nothing done and doing nothing are two different things? So I sit, and face the spiritual practice of doing nothing. It is difficult to give myself that permission, especially when there is a list of things to do and a full DVR to watch. I sit to meditate, then I wonder what is new on YouTube, I sit in silence and wonder how my favorite shows will end, I sit to pray and wonder when it will be over so I can return to contributing. That’s my monkey mind, a mind so busy it runs around like a monkey from topic to topic. I don’t hear the silence of peace, I hear only the chatter of what needs done.

The Hebrew Bible says “Blessed is Sabbath, and you keep it holy.” God not only gives permission but makes the demand that his people rest, and though we may not all believe in God, what if we just chose to believe in rest? What if we look to ourselves, and acknowledge that humans need rest, deserve rest, and thrive with rest. What if rest is so important it is like doing something?

The holidays are upon us, and though generally assumed we will rest, do we really ever rest? We have to cook, clean, shop, and deal with broken relationships. There are expectations–that year after year we do not meet. It is easy then to be filled with shame over those expectations but in truth what if we decided our expectations are wrong-not us?

Would it be different if we cooked because we wanted to, gave and received gifts out of love, and understood that even in our brokenness we can be one? Then, maybe, instead of seeking entertainment we found that the best entertainment is none at all–that Doing Nothing may be the most important thing we will ever do? – Justin M McCreary

The Practice of Prayer

The Practice of Prayer
Rev. Justin McCreary

One of the most powerful aspects of religion is prayer. Pictures of prayer prevail our culture and fill our minds with hopeful thoughts. Prayer is an old concept and at it’s core a simple one often entrenched in centuries of institutional dogma. Often the only prayers we hear are public and offered ceremoniously in some form of service. The prayer then becomes a social convention used only to open ceremonies and fill space in church services., and this separates us from the core matter of prayer, the purpose, connection.

As a youth and into my adult years I sat in church services listening to the old men pray. I often sat fearing the call to pray in public. What is telling is that I was prepared to preach a sermon at twelve but the butterflies didn’t form until I was asked to lead prayer.

However, in the long run, I found was that it didn’t matter what I said but only that I was honest. Instead of ceremony I found simple conversation. And If prayer is simply conversation then maybe the conversation I had from day to day was prayer, and I learned that my favorite conversations had a lot of comfortable silence. So at night, sitting on the edge of my bed, with no words, I wondered, is this prayer? If so it is more than conversation, it is connection. Connection that wasn’t found in words, but the golden silence that adorned what would become holy space.

Of course, learning to sit in silence requires a lot of learning to let go. And learning to let go requires a lot of suffering. Under the Bodhi Tree a young prince learned that life is suffering. This gives us a lot of fodder for letting go, which gives us a lot of time for silence, which leaves us plenty of room for prayer. Life teaches that the most important thing about prayer is the practice of prayer. This is a thing that we can always do, and never worry about doing right, because doing it is doing it right.